THEY come down almost every evening to human habitations, kill a few dogs and take them away. This has become a common practice for the leopards living around the Karewas of Budgam near Srinagar airport. This entire area has become a safe haven for them for almost 15 years now and my assumption has been that these cats are no longer wild. This was authenticated by senior wildlife officer Raashid Naqash the Regional Wildlife Warden Kashmir recently during my detailed interaction with him. He is of the opinion that due to changed habitat and close proximity with human population, the leopards who have made Karewas of Budgam near Srinagar airport their abode for the last 10 to 15 years are less wild now as majority of them have not seen their traditional habitat which used to be the alpine forests. It is now a known fact that leopards living around Srinagar outskirts especially in Budgam Karewas feed on dogs who are found in abundance in the area.
Change in Eating Habits & Habitat
A few decades back, the leopards in Kashmir would hardly hunt for dogs. This was because leopards would not visit human habitations quite frequently. Due to deforestation and the construction of roads around forest areas, leopards were forced to visit human habitations. Initially, they used to kill humans, especially children.
As per my own assessment and field research, this graph has come down now. The reason is that leopards have become habitual to kill and eat dogs.
The leopards who live around Srinagar airport and other Karewas of Budgam probably used to live in Pir Panjaal mountains of Budgam and after coming down in search of food they found a new habitat as well and got settled in the vast Karewas which are small hilly tracts spread around Budgam district.
As the lifespan of leopards is between 15 to 17 years, I believe a majority of them who come down in search of prey to Rangreth, Pirbagh, Gogoland, Humhama,Ompora, Ichgam, Kralpora, Wathoora and other areas surrounding Srinagar airport have been born and brought up in the Karewas only. These cats are not familiar with the habitat of their ancestors who used to live in the upper reaches surrounded by alpine forests. This is the reason that this new breed of leopards is not as wild and is getting domesticated.
Few years back a leopard killed a little girl Adha in Humhama, but from last 3 years there has been no fresh case wherein children or any other human being has been attacked by the leopards even as they are found in good numbers around Srinagar airport and Budgam Karewas.
Karewas, The new habitat
The Karewas are the plateau-like landforms that remain tucked away in the folds of the surrounding mountains, particularly the Pir Panjal mountain range in Kashmir.
Karewas are 13,000-18,000 metre-thick deposits of alluvial soil and sediments like sandstone and mudstone. This makes them ideal for cultivation of saffron, almonds, apples and several other cash crops. In Budgam district a large number of almond orchards are located in the Karewas. During the spring season when the almond trees are in bloom, the Karewas look gorgeous.
Kashmir saffron, which received a Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2020 for its longer and thicker stigmas, deep-red colour, high aroma and bitter flavour, is also grown on these karewas especially in Pampore and some areas of adjoining Pulwama district.
The fertility of these patches is believed to be the result of their long history of formation. Karewas were formed during the Pleistocene period (2.6 million years to 11,700 years ago), the Pir Panjal range blocked the natural drainage in the region and formed a lake spanning 5,000 sq km and that is the reason Kashmir valley was known as Satisar. The water receded after a major earthquake from the Baramulla area, making way for the valley and the formation of the karewas between the mountains. In Hindu mythology it is said that Kashab Rishi drained out the water to get hold of a Demon who lived in the Satisar. The Srinagar airport is located in Karewa Damodar which is an elevated plateau like land formation.
Until the early 1990s, the Karewa land around the airport was mostly barren. Except for almond trees, there was no other vegetation around this vast area of around 50 square kilometers. In 1990-1991, the government, through Social Forestry Department started massive plantations in the Karewas Damodar just outside the airport area some villages located near the airport, particularly in Humhama, Ompora, Kralpora , Wathoora, Rangreth, Gogo and other areas. The plantation has become so thick that the boundaries of the Karewa Damodar (airport area) looks like a dense forest. As there is less movement of people here due to the security cover around the area, leopards who migrated from Pir Panjal forests found set up a new habitat where they rest during the day without any human interference and soon after sunset they come down to villages and colonies like Kralpora, Wathoora, Rangreth, Gogoland, Pir Pagh, Humhama in search of food. They kill dogs and take them away in their jaws. Only a few days back, a leopard was spotted in Malik Bagh Kralpora area who was seen carrying a dog in the jaws.
Not only are leopards roaming freely in human habitations around Srinagar airport, we have seen a female bear and her cubs roaming around Rajbagh and Jawahar Nagar last year in September. The bears from the Zabarwan mountain range, especially the Shankaracharya hill in Srinagar, come down in search of food. Their main aim is to search for garbage bins where they find a lot of non-veg waste food dumped in it. Just as the plantations in Karewas around Srinagar airport paved a way for leopards to make the area their abode, similarly, bears from Zabarwan mountains came down and made Shankarachayara hill their abode as the deodar and kail plantation was done around early 1990s by Forest Department which has turned the area into a thick forest now. In both cases, neither the bears found in Shankaracharya hill nor leopards in Budgam Karewas are very dangerous because they don’t kill human-beings.
At a time when we see so many leopards around Srinagar airport, why hasn’t any attack been reported? I personally believe that a time will come when they will roam freely in streets and residential areas because of their changing food habits and habitats.
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
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